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The pesticide debate

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Alys Fowler Alys Fowler | 09:03 UK time, Sunday, 21 November 2010

I enjoy twitter (@AlysFowler) for all sorts of reasons  - the banter, the140-characters insight into other people's minds. You can follow the rich, famous and downright crackpot. That, and it is a very good place for debate (though clearly the crackpot can throw the argument into some very odd corners).

One of the people I follow is Phil from Landscape Juice (@LandscapeJuice). He runs an online network for the landscape and horticultural industry and is a prolific blogger. We had a little debate a while back following one of his posts; it's about whether banning pesticides in public places could work?



I was interested in this debate as I read a similar article whilst I was in America. New York State is banning chemical use (pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers) in schools and athletics fields from May 2011.

They decided to do this after Grassroots Environmental Educations, a campaigning body that is dedicated ‘to educating the public about links between common environmental toxins and human health’, put together a case for an alternative. Their report showed that organic practices in the long term would be cheaper.

Though even they agreed that the argument was won on health implications rather than money in the end.

Now clearly I’m going to sit firmly in the organic camp. I think that long term we will have to learn to rely on cultivation techniques and with this there will have to be a sea change in how we view our green spaces - perfectly manicured rose beds in a climate of economical cuts and limited labour resources may just not be the right thing anymore. 



A wilder approach whether it's more  grassland or wild flower meadows will probably look more chaotic, may be more rich in biodiversity, cheaper to look after and perhaps, dare I say it, more aesthetically pleasing than the old school flowerbeds (well at least more pleasing than the tortured rose beds in my park).

But in the short term, as Phil points out, that quite a lot to ask of a cash strapped park manager or council worker. Although chemicals are not cheap anymore, they are certainly cheaper than labour costs and the initial outlay of moving over to organic management is expensive.

Asking everyone to give up his or her knapsack sprayers for a hoe is just not a viable option yet. The sort of skills needed to manage a space using cultural techniques rather than grabbing a bottle comes down to one thing: skills.

We’ve got a skills shortage and there’s not going to be any money for consultants or re-training anytime soon. There's a huge gap between the wages someone needs to earn to live and the sort of money you could offer someone to do a potentially menial job.

So how do we go about fixing this problem? One answer is that it might just get too expensive to buy chemicals in the future, particularly if you subscribe to the idea of a looming peak oil crisis, chemicals need energy to be manufactured. In which case we’ll need a little creative thinking. Perhaps we could bring back pasture management to some of our larger spaces. I’m all for seeing some urban shepherds and flock of sheep whilst I go to the allotment.

Another solution might be to engage more active participation from the community. My local park has a community coppicing programme where volunteers help to manage the woodlands areas. But the Big Society is increasingly going to ask an awful lot from communities - would weeding really be a priority over libraries or health care?

Alys Fowler is a garden writer and presenter of BBC Gardeners' World.


  • Comment number 1.

    what a thought provoking blog,if the chemical giants can produce organic slug killer, perhaps one day they could produce organic pesticides,herbicides,and fertilizers on a large scale to satisfy those who like to keep the bugs and weeds at bay!

  • Comment number 2.

    This has certainly made me think! Wouldn't it be be lovely if the parks we all use were guaranteed to be chemical free.

    My kids love the idea of sheep roaming around freely in the park. They have also decided to ask at our school what they use to keep the rugby pitches so green.

    Maybe we can all help just by questioning what is used and asking the simple question is't there an organic alternative?

  • Comment number 3.

    A thought-provoking piece. Community engagement in weeding seems to be the answer. As you say, it might not stack up against more vital work - but perhaps it could be 'sold' via the therapeutic value of working the soil? Soil surely gives off some kind of happy hormone: oddly, I never return from an arduous day's weeding/digging in a bad mood.

    For a funny story about chemicals, please see:

  • Comment number 4.

    Clearly volunteer gardening can work wonders look at any large garden and there will be legions of volunteers behind the scenes helping to keep these gardens looking wonderful. But these places have great appeal who wouldn't want to weed at Wisley, what if it's the grotty corner of the park. I think it comes back to needing a new planting regime for public places. Anyone who's interested in this should check out Nigel Dunnet's work at the University of Sheffield I for one want to see a lot more pictorial meadows in public spaces.
    As for playing fields well I think a chemical free pitch is hard to argue against and it's only relatively recently that chemicals have been used so widely. It's clearly possible as this golf course shows, it just expensive to set up
    but if you don't ask you don't get

  • Comment number 5.

    Great blog, Alys. Ironically, my local council are talking about closing our library and they've amalgamated our doctor's surgery with another practice, although our lovely park seems to be getting through unscathed. It does have the tortured rose beds you talk of though...

  • Comment number 6.

    The City of Toronto and province of Ontario banned "cosmetic" pesticide use in public and private areas several years ago. Now what looks like grass from a distance is least 30-40% clover and chamomile upon closer inspection. Although this is completely anecdotal, I have noticed an increase in song birds and predator birds. There doesn't appear to be any downside, unless you think a perfect lawn is more important than your own health. On the other hand, Canada doesn't really have a culture of public gardens (they are extremely utilitarian)so the labour equation hasn't changed at all. I like the idea of communities taking charge of their own local beautification. Wouldn't it be wonderful if every school had a garden, and agriculture/horticulture was taught to children?

  • Comment number 7.

    there seems to be some change in the way some london parks are kept. springfield park in clapton now has an orchard in the middle of it and long grass in places with all sorts growing there. looks wonderful.

  • Comment number 8.

    Great blog! Down with pesticides!

  • Comment number 9.

    I am against 'regular maintenance' with pesticides, however when a problem occurs, they must be considered. An example would be the London Olympics, the whole area was infested with Japanese Knotweed. These plant can break through tarmac if they have enough roots, so the specialist chemical control was justified?

  • Comment number 10.

    I was pleased to read earlier this year about a Japanese insect, a natural predator of knotweed, is being released in a handful of sites in the uk to see if it will work here. Perhaps we should also consider eating the young shoots! I realise that this will not get rid of knotweed, but a step in the right direction....


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